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Strikes and Wild Fires

It’s about salary.  It’s about test scores.  It’s about evaluation.  It’s about respect.  It’s about tenure.  It’s about personalities.  It’s about power.

If you followed the news about the Chicago teachers’ strike you know that at some point all of these ideas and more were put forward by each side.  “You have a situation where teachers feel totally and completely disrespected,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.  No hyperbole there.  For his part, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the strike “a strike of choice.”  None there either.

Alex Kotlowitz wrote in the NY Times, “One teacher told me last week that if you asked 30 of his colleagues why they were striking, you’d get 30 different answers.  Their explanations varied:  they Forest_fire[HR]wanted respect, they opposed school reform, they feared the privatization of education, they wanted to teach Mayor Rahm Emanuel a lesson.”  But Kotlowitz believes that the real underlying reason for the strike is this:  Teachers, whether they know it or not, are rebelling against the idea that they alone are responsible for resolving all the issues facing kids. 

Paul Tough, in his new book How Children Succeed says that tenure reform has become “the central policy tool in our national effort to improve the lives of poor children.”  Of course, he says, the truth is much more complex.  Unfortunately, it’s easier and more convenient for both teachers and reformers to pretend that it isn’t.

I’ve spent the last couple of days in Yellowstone National Park.  The scenery, of course, is spectacular, even surreal.  But in 1988 the park experienced an enormous wildfire that decimated thousands of acres of forestland.  For the first time the Park Service made the decision to allow the fire to burn for a while as a natural cycle of forestry.  The Park Service believed that science indicated that that suppression of wild fires stunted new growth by protecting old and diseased trees.  Forest fires were the natural way to remove those trees, promote new growth, and increase natural habitats and food supplies for wildlife.  The decision to let the forests burn led to a public outcry that resulted in Congressional hearings about the Forest Service’s decision.   Today, although the east entrance to the park reveals thousands of charred trees still standing, the last 25 years have proved the decision was the correct one as new growth has come back and wildlife has increased.  Still, it was a painful decision to live through and today the Park Service has specific guidelines regarding suppression of wild fires.

Change is hard.  The Park Service could have avoided or at least diminished the public outcry if it had worked together with lawmakers to study the science and make good judgments involving everyone.  The same is true of teachers and public officials.  Inflammatory rhetoric helps no one; working together does.  The struggle in Chicago isn’t about kids; it’s about power.  The fire for reform burns hot, but so does the desire to suppress it.  The forests will return, they say, in about 100 years.  We don’t have that kind of time.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.